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Letter to the Star: a response to an article that appeared in the Star, 29 April 2013 titled "Rhino killings will never stop, says expert."

03 May 2013

The Editor
The Star

Your article in the Star of 29th April, titled ‘Rhino killings will never stop, says expert’ paints an unnecessarily bleak picture of governments’ fight against rhino poaching, citing Dr Salmon Joubert as stating that the number of rhinos being poached was surpassing the number being born annually. While it is recognized that the rate of rhino poaching has increased in the first 4 months of 2012, and that there has been an escalation in both the intensity and the levels of sophistication of the crime syndicates that are conducting these criminal activities, it is important to stress that we have not yet reached the point where South Africa’s (and Kruger’s) rhino population is declining. The rate of loss of white rhino in the Kruger National Park stood at 3,8% of the total population in 2012, and this is expected to rise to around 5,5% in 2013. While this is a considerable escalation in the loss rate, it has not yet reached the rate of natural increase in the population which stands at around 8%, depending on management interventions.

According to Dr Sam Ferreira, Large Mammal Ecologist at SANParks, the white rhino population in the Kruger National Park will begin declining in 2016 if the present rates of increase in poaching continue. It is important to note in this regard that 12 of the 35 landscapes in the Kruger National Park had seen a stabilization of rhino populations due to density-dependent ecological processes. According to Dr Ferreira the removal of a number of rhino from these landscapes could induce localized higher population growth thus compensating to a certain extent for poaching losses.

It should also be noted that the fight against rhino poaching has been stepped up considerably and that there are a number of new initiatives to tackle this scourge head on. Dr Joubert’s comments seem to indicate that there is little chance of government and SANParks achieving success in the fight against rhino poaching. Contrary to what some ‘experts’ say, however, there are a number of significant steps that have been undertaken by SANParks as one of the chief custodians of the country’s rhino population.

One of the main steps is that the fight against rhino poachers in the Kruger National Park has now been put under the command of a retired military officer, Major General Johan Jooste (ret), who was appointed to take charge of the air wing, ranger corps, and the K9 units of Kruger’s anti-rhino poaching unit. There has also been a programme to recruit additional rangers, and to re-train the existing rangers to be able to fight the war against what is essentially counter-insurgency activity, much of it emanating from across the eastern border of the Kruger National Park.

It is common knowledge that a proposal has been made for the eastern boundary fence to be repaired and restored between Kruger and Mozambique. While the fence alone will not guarantee success in preventing rhino poaching from this source, it will contribute along with other measures to enhancing our ability to fight poaching in this part of the Park.

It is recognized also that the crime syndicates who are running the rhino poaching operation have access to advanced technology, and that appropriate technological interventions need to be deployed to counter this challenge. Increasing use is being made of Cybertrackers donated by the SANParks Honorary Rangers and there have also been test runs of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) donated by Denel. SANParks also has a Seeker surveillance aircraft donated by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, that is fitted with a thermal imaging system. Dogs have also been introduced to assist the ranger corps in both tracking and apprehending suspected poachers.

These means have been put in place to ensure the survival of the Rhino and other threatened species. In the words of the Commanding Officer SANParks Major General Johan Jooste (ret) “We are doing everything we can in the Park, but the battle will be won outside of the park. We need communities, politicians, law enforcement agencies and the justice department to work jointly with us if we are to deliver a telling blow against the scourge of rhino poaching

On the international front it is worth noting that the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs has signed a memorandum of understanding with her Vietnamese counterpart, as well as another MOU with her Chinese counterpart. These moves are significant in the sense that these are the prime consumer markets for rhino horn. Currently there are also talks with the Mozambican Government with a view to tightening laws around poaching activities.

The public needs to be assured that the government and SANParks are taking all steps possible to deal with the scourge of rhino poaching. While it is hard to see a time in the near future where this crime is eliminated completely, we are certainly confident of being able to contain and ultimately to roll back the scale of this crime given the commitment and effort of all concerned.

Wanda Mkutshulwa
Managing Executive: Corporate Services SANParks

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